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The downward spiral
Slarek revisits the 1929 DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, a downbeat, adult themed and gorgeously realised work of German silent cinema from the dynamite team of director G.W. Pabst and actress Louise Brooks, looking better than ever on Masters of Cinema's new Blu-ray.
 

The film review below is un updated repost of my coverage of the 2007 Masters of Cinema DVD release of Diary of a Lost Girl. The Sound and Vision, Extra Features and Summary sections are newly written and specific to this release.

We were unable to procure our usual screen grabs for this Blu-ray release due to the enhanced encryption on the disc, but will endeavour to add them at a later date.

 

As a long-standing film devotee, I'm probably unusual in that I've never fixated on any particular actor or actress, even at a young age. Well, that's not completely true. There was one who even in picture book stills would make me just a little dizzy and who on screen I regarded as little short of a goddess in human form. The woman in question was Louise Brooks, and this obsession was based on her starring role in just one film, Georg Wilhelm Pabst's hauntingly brilliant 1929 Pandora's Box. I was not alone in this – a close friend of years past frequently used Brooks as a yardstick by which to measure all human beauty and always referred to the bob cut that became so popular in the 60s through the likes of Vidal Sassoon as 'the Louise Brooks hairstyle'. Reading the booklet that accompanies this Blu-ray release of Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks' second collaboration with Pabst, it's clear that our fascination with this particular actress was not an isolated one.

There is likely a sizeable portion of any potential movie audience that will instantly tune out when they realise a film is of a certain age, and more so if they discover that it's a product of silent cinema. Those with limited exposure to films of this period have sometimes narrow expectations for them, of speeded-up slapstick or overwrought dramas with exaggerated gestures and sets the size of small towns. What they often fail to appreciate is the speed of cinematic development that took place in this period, where enthusiastic and talented artists were pushing this new medium forward on a seemingly week-by-week basis in both technique and storytelling sophistication. Go back to 1927 and just have a look an the astonishing technical wizardry of Abel Gance's Napoleon – this film wasn't just ahead of its time, it was ahead of our time.

Some of the most thrilling of all late silent cinema works emerged from Europe and especially Germany, the sometimes fantasy-based Expressionist works of the early 20s eventually giving way to the social realist films of the decade's close. With the rise of fascism in the run-up to WW2, many German filmmakers fled to Hollywood, where their contributions were to prove key to the look and feel of early sound cinema there. It was a different story for Pandora's Box, a rare example of a German film of the period with an imported American star. Later the same year, Pabst and Brooks made their second film together, Diary of a Lost Girl [Tagebuch einer Verlorenen], a film I never got around to tracking down until it was released on UK DVD by Masters of Cinema in 2007. And when the review disc arrived, what did I do? I put it on the pile and swore I'd get onto it and ended up missing the release date by several months. Yet I reviewed it anyway. Why? It's simple, really – because Diary of a Lost Girl is a beautifully made and consistently compelling drama that I suspected many others had also yet to discover. Eight years on I'm willing to bet that this is still the case.

There is so much in this film to recommend that it's hard to know where to begin or how much to reveal. Let's kick off with this – right from the start, the film treats you like a world-aware adult. Made three years before America's Production Code put its repressive foot down on any home grown or imported film dealing with mature themes, the directness in Diary of a Lost Girl seems retrospectively startling. Consider the opening scene. A young housekeeper named Elisabeth (Sybille Schmitz) is begging at the feet of her middle-aged employer, pharmacist Karl Henning (Josef Rovensky), whose watching wife contemptuously observes, "So you've had your way with this housekeeper, too." Enter the couple's beautiful young daughter Thymian (the lovely Louise), who doesn't understand why Elisabeth is leaving. No-one is about to tell her, except for creepy shop worker Meinert (Fritz Rasp), who keeps a collection of nude photos in his desk and clearly has lecherous designs on Thymian. He instructs her to meet him in the shop that evening via a note placed in the diary she has just received as a Confirmation gift, when he promises to explain all. Before this meeting can take place, however, Thymian is sent into a state of shock by the news that Elisabeth has taken her own life, which fails to stop Karl from making his first moves on her newly arrived and willing replacement Meta (Franziska Kinz). Later that evening the still distraught Thymian decides to keep her appointment with Meinert, whose deceptive seduction prompts her to faint. Meinert responds by carrying her upstairs to bed and raping her.

OK, we're not talking the sort of explicit sexual assault you might find in modern European cinema, but the audience is left in no doubt about just what took place after the fadeout. It's the beginning of a downward slide for Thymian, who nine months later gives birth to the child of this unfortunate union but refuses to name the father. The family find out anyway by prising open her diary, but Karl's resulting anger cuts no ice with the cocksure Meinert. The family decide that Thymian should be kept away from this innocent child, which they deposit with a local midwife before shipping Thymian off to a correctional institution for wayward young girls, a sort of 1920s German equivalent of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries, one run by a skeletal automaton and his sadistic lesbian wife. Can you guess who the latter takes a shine to?

Strong stuff this may sound for 1929, but we're just getting started here – the death of her child and a drift into prostitution still await the unfortunate Thymian, and I won't even go into what's happening with her father and the unpleasant Meinert. A ray of hope arrives in the shape of Count Nikolaus Orsdorff (André Roanne), although his failure to succeed in anything he has tried has led to him being shunned by his wealthy father and left to make his own way in the world, something he does with cheer but little financial acumen. Partly as a result, even his story takes a later turn for the tragic.

Downbeat it may be but depressing it isn't, and it's a testament to Pabst's extraordinary skill as a director that even in Thymian's darkest moments she retains an innocence and purity of heart that ensures instant and unwavering audience identification with her plight. There's no cinematic showing off on his part – even the more inventive shots, as when characters are introduced from behind a raised newspaper or a bunch of flowers, are designed specifically to economically advance the narrative. It's a beautifully crafted film, telling its story through sometimes perfectly judged and consistently purposeful camerawork and editing, and providing a most persuasive demonstration of the emotional and narrative power of cinema as a purely visual medium.

Central to this, of course, is Brooks herself, as electrifying a screen presence here as she was in Pandora's Box. Lest you be misled by my earlier admission, I'm not talking just about iconic beauty here, but a performance whose subtlety and depth flies in the face of commonly held belief of what constitutes the silent movie norm. The thing is, she's not alone. Theatrical villains and comedy relief aside (as Meinert, Fritz Rasp oozes sleaze from every pore, while the beard-twiddling customer who responds to Thymian's ad for 'dancing lessons' could be straight out of Mack Sennett), the performances are as controlled and naturalistic as any you'll find in later sound cinema and frankly could show some of the more attention-grabbing actors of today a thing or two. This is most keenly felt at a dance hall scene in which Thymian comes achingly close to a reunion with her father and one of her companions, after which the rotund Dr. Vitalis (Kurt Gerron) cries a single, heartfelt tear for her fate and tells her "You are now a lost girl, just as we all are lost." It's an emotionally powerful moment, one among many, and achieved without hitting the audience over the head for the reaction, a skill modern western cinema appears to have largely lost or wilfully abandoned. This is real film acting, demonstrating a keen understanding on the part of the director and performers of the communicative power of the mid-shot and the close-up, and how it allows you to tell your story with a whisper rather than a shout.

There's so much more to say about Diary of a Lost Girl, about the performances and the handling and the modest brilliance of individual scenes, but this is the point to stop reading about it and see it. If the very idea of sitting through a German silent film from 1929 is too much for you then it's your loss. The rest of us can only offer thanks that there are dedicated souls out there restoring and releasing such works on DVD and Blu-ray, reminding us that the filmmaking art, for all its technical development in the hundred plus years of its existence, was actually mastered in its first thirty.

And after all these years, do I still think Louise Brooks was the epitome of western cinematic beauty? Oh you'd better believe it.

sound and vision

Unlike its DVD predecessor, this new Blu-ray release kicks off with the announcement that the film was the victim of contemporary censorship and provides details of the 1997 photochemical restoration, which saw the missing scenes restored and the film reconstructed to its originally premiered form. As with the previous DVD transfer, a considerable amount of damage is still clearly visible, some of which has been brought more clearly into focus by the higher resolution of the HD transfer. Some of this is quite pronounced and there are shots in which their frequency and intensity is impossible to ignore. Yet somehow you do, in part because of your involvement in the drama, but largely because the merits of the transfer easily outweigh its time-imposed flaws. The image itself sits solidly in frame at all times and the tonal range – which varies from high contrast to softer greys – is for the most part most finely graded. The sharpness and level of detail, though not as crisp as you'll find on the finest restorations of films of this period, is still consistently impressive and noticeably superior to that of the previous DVD, and that was no slouch. The previously censored material, which was sourced from an alternative master to the rest of the film, tends to be in the least sparkling shape, but frankly I'm grateful we can see it at all.

The piano score for this release is less grandiose than a full orchestral accompaniment would have been, which nicely compliments Pabst's low-key approach. In the booklet that accompanied the DVD release (but oddly absent here) was the the suggestion that you watch the film without the score for maximum effect – this certainly alters the experience and does, as suggested, focus your attention on Pabst's visual technique, although in my house this left the film open to a soundtrack of passing cars, the hum of a fridge compressor and the shouts of passers-by.

extra features

New to this edition is a video essay on the film, created by Craig Keller and narrated by Fiona Watson and wearing the frankly brilliant title Naked on my Goat (11:39), which it turns out was also the title of Louise Brooks' autobiography, which she apparently destroyed shortly after its completion (and yes, the explanation for the choice of title is explained here). The essay itself is a little ragtag in structure but peppered with interesting analysis and info on the film, its director and actors Louise Brooks and Kurt Gerron.

The usual and always eagerly anticipated Masters of Cinema Booklet is packed with great stuff. There's an enjoyable and informative essay on the film by R. Dixon Smith titled G. W. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl and the Miracle of Louise Brooks; a piece on Louise Brooks titled Lost Girl Regained by Louella Interim; recollections of meeting G.W. Pabst by Lotte H. Eisner; excerpts from Brooks' acclaimed movie memoirs Lulu in Hollywood and one of many letters she wrote to theatre critic Kenneth Tynan; a poetry-structured recollection of the actress by Craig Keller titled Louise From Memory; film and archive stills, credits for the film, notes on viewing and quotes about Louise Brooks from Henry Langlois, Ado Kyrou and Howard Hawks. The cover of the booklet is particularly intriguing, being not the original poster that adorned its DVD predecessor but a crisp colour photo of a New York apartment block, which was apparently Brooks' final residence.

summary

Returning to the film after a gap of a few years, I was every bit as captivated by it as I was on that revelatory first viewing, and for the very same reasons, which is why I chose to simply update and repost my original review of the film itself for this release. What more was there to say? If you have the DVD, you're unlikely to be persuaded to upgrade purely on the basis of the single new extra feature, but if you were as impressed by the film as I was then the picture enhancements offered by the new HD transfer will likely tip the balance, and if you don't own the previous disc then this is definitely the one to go for. Recommended.

Diary of a Lost Girl
Tagebuch einer Verlorenen

Germany 1929
113 mins
director
G.W. Pabst
producer
G.W. Pabst
screenplay
Rudolf Leonhardt
based on the novel by
Margarete Böhme
cinematography
Sepp Allgeier
Fritz Arno Wagner
music
Otto Stenzeel
art direction
Emil Hasler
Ernö Metzner
starring
Louise Brooks
André Roanne
Josef Rovensky
Fritz Rasp
Franziska Kinz
Arnold Korff
Andrews Engelmann
Valeska Gert

disc details
region B
video
1.33:1 OAR
sound
LPCM 2.0 mono
languages
German inter-titles
subtitles
English
extras
Video essay
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
24 November 2014
review posted
23 November 2014

related review
Diary of a Lost Girl [DVD review]

See all of Slarek's reviews